CASA de Maryland, the immigrant rights group, recently requested from the Board of Elections a copy of the petition sheets from the current effort to place on the 2012 ballot a voter referendum on the state's recently enacted law granting in-state tuition to illegal immigrants. Such sheets are public records, and the board gave the organization a computer disk with scans of the sheets, as it did for other groups with an interest in the matter — and as it has done for petition drives in the past, including last year's effort in Anne Arundel County to overturn the zoning for a casino at Arundel Mills Mall.
In fact, the board gave precisely the same information to Del. Michael Smigiel, a Cecil County Republican and one of the leading proponents of the effort to overturn the immigrant tuition law. Mr. Smigiel wrote on his blog that he was shocked, when he received his disk, to discover that it contained not only the names of those who signed the petition and whether their signatures were accepted or rejected but also their addresses. "It is my opinion," Delegate Smigiel wrote, "that the actions of CASA to date would give petition signers legitimate reason to be concerned about what CASA may do with the lists of names." He went on to accuse CASA volunteers and workers of engaging in voter suppression by handing out fliers and talking to voters at the same locations where petitioners are gathering signatures, and he intimated that those who signed the petitions have a real reason to fear harassment and intimidation.
That is nonsense, and it exemplifies the fear and hysteria that have prevented a rational discussion of the illegal immigrant tuition bill and its merits. Names and addresses on petitions are and always have been public records. Asking for a vote to overturn an act of the General Assembly and governor is a public act and an extraordinary one, and so it is right that records of that act be openly available. If the organizers of this petition drive didn't make signers aware of that fact, it's unfortunate, but they do themselves and the cause of democracy no favors by implying that people should be afraid to openly take part in the political process.
For the record, CASA says it asked for the information as part of its strategy to examine the petitions to see if they can be challenged in court. The ACLU is already looking at whether the online system petition organizers are using to gather signatures is legal in Maryland, and CASA plans to check whether it can challenge the validity of some of the signatures the state elections board has accepted as valid. These sorts of challenges are standard fare in any attempt to use Maryland's referendum process, and they are part of the reason why so few state laws have ever been brought to the ballot, much less overturned.
As for the question of whether CASA is crossing the line in trying to persuade people not to sign the petition, the group's members are exercising their political rights, just as the petition gatherers are. Delegate Smigiel has done important work in making sure that local authorities recognize petition organizers' right to gather signatures in public places, and he should recognize that the opposing side has the same right to express its point of view about a matter of public policy. If the backers of the petition drive have actual evidence that representatives of CASA or any other groups that support the law have engaged in harassment, they should call the police. All those involved on both sides of the issue need to be respectful.
But the petitioners' complaints about the contents of the flier CASA representatives are handing out — Delegate Smigiel called it "half truths and lies" and wondered, "How is that not voter suppression?" — are thin. The fliers are strongly opinionated and include a less than charitable description of the motives of those backing the petition drive, and they certainly don't acknowledge any of the counter-arguments. But they don't include information that is untrue.
They claim that overturning the law would "deny Maryland taxpayers and their children affordable access to college." That's true; the law requires that students prove that their parents had paid Maryland taxes to be eligible for the tuition break.
The fliers say the referendum would "repeal benefits for military families." Also true; the bill makes it easier for Maryland high school graduates who served in the military to get in-state tuition after an honorable discharge.
The flier says that even before the matter goes to the ballot box, it would "effectively remove education options for Maryland's children and students for two years." Essentially true, since the act of putting the law on the ballot would stay its effect until after the vote in 2012, by which time two academic years will have started.
It says the initiative will reverse legislation supported by "educators, colleges, faith institutions, civil rights groups and children's organizations," and that it would "make it more difficult for children who grow up and go to school in Maryland to attend our public colleges and universities." Both true.
What's most curious about the tussle over the petition process is that it seems unlikely to matter. Petition organizers have a few more days to submit additional signatures, and their chances of meeting the minimum to get the matter on the ballot look extremely strong. The ACLU's questions about the online component of this petition drive are uncharted territory in Maryland law. But unless those petitions are thrown out en masse, the referendum advocates look all but certain to exceed the 55,736 signatures required by law. Likewise, the all-out blitz by the law's backers to derail the petition process is perplexing. They were able to convince majorities of both the Senate and House of Delegates of the merits of the bill. There is no reason they shouldn't be able to convince a majority of Maryland voters of the same.